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How Haute Cuisine Saved Beantown

Boston Was Once Known for Cod and Baked Beans. Today a 'Dining Experience' Might Include Lacquered Foie Gras With Sweet and Sour Lemon and Bee Pollen.

March 18, 2001|GWEN ROMAGNOLI and G. FRANCO ROMAGNOLI

And this is good old Boston, the home of the bean and the cod . . . .

*

And it was fine.

It was fine if you liked beans and you liked cod and you didn't mind predictability.

Because, after all, it was Boston, and it had so many other things to recommend it: Beacon Hill and the Back Bay and, some years, the Red Sox. Faneuil Hall and Quincy Market and the Freedom Trail. It was history and it was highbrow and if you happened to get hungry, the old standbys could provide sustenance. The town's well-known eateries used longevity as their major attraction. "In business since . . . ." became the most significant criterion.

The Union Oyster House (open since 1826 and self-proclaimed oldest restaurant in the country) features tall wooden booths, boiled lobster and fresh shucked oysters. Durgin-Park (since 1827) serves the rowdy waterfront crowds pork and beans and meat and potatoes plunked down on communal tables. Locke-Ober (since 1875) is the exclusive, waxed mahogany and cigars Brahmin waterhole, where meat and potatoes morphed into filet mignon et pommes de terre. Jimmy's Harborside (since 1927, a newcomer), a huge place at the edge of the bay, offers clam chowder, codfish cakes, lobster rolls, corn on the cob.

These restaurants of documented seniority pretty much covered the range of Boston dining. They kept up with the times, adding a fan here or an air conditioner there, but generally the fare remained the same. Customers went for it, confident that by now the kitchens had their acts down pat, dishing out exactly what one expected.

Then came the revolution.

Beginning in the mid-1960s, the blue sky behind Beacon Hill and the State House's Golden Dome was replaced by skyscrapers. As the city's skyline changed, so did its demographics. The influx of young technocrats of the new cyber-industries not only brought new money but also changes in the town's social texture. The food scene followed the pattern: yuppies demanded more interesting food and a more interesting dining experience.

Chowder was out, pesto in.

A new generation of restaurateurs and chefs appeared: Jasper White, in his upscale Jasper's, began serving New England food with imaginative class. Lydia Shire, now owner of the trendsetting Biba, took over the stoves at the new, modern Bostonian Hotel, putting a creative twist to hotel fare (and, incidentally, opening up the field to a slew of women chefs). Lucien Robert ensconced his Maison Robert in the vacated Old City Hall, serving real French food in elegant surroundings.

In 1976, for the bicentennial celebrations, civic leaders inaugurated the Faneuil Hall Marketplace. Architect Benjamin Thompson took three decrepit waterfront warehouses--standing like crumbling ships at a dock--and revived the brick and granite buildings as an elegant mall. This magnet attracted life back to the downtown restaurants.

From Romagnoli's Table in the Marketplace just below ancient Durgin-Park, we could see the change and were happy to be part of it. (That business is now in the past.) We dispensed with marinara sauce and chicken cacciatore and attracted patrons with our then-unheard of carpaccio di carne, insalata caprese and daily homemade pastas. People came to us prepared to accept different fare, having seen it on "The Romagnoli's Table" show on the same Boston station that launched Julia Child.

Unquestionably, Julia was one of the forces behind the change. In her warm and down-to-earth way, she helped people open their minds and palates. Unfamiliar, "foreign" food (and a sip of wine) ceased to be the abstruse domain of the hoity-toity and became an enjoyable, approachable element of daily life for hoi polloi. Quality triumphed over quantity. The once-ubiquitous "all you can eat" began to disappear from menus.

Even the North End's clarion call of "mangia! mangia!" lost its appeal--and the sizable core of new restaurateurs/chefs spawned today's generation of inventive cooks who laid out a new culinary landscape. (A few, alas, were even too inventive, especially in the presentation department and in the just-to-impress-you menu terminology: coulis, confit, rouille, ravigote, poussin . . . couldn't we say it in English?) Today one would be hard put to find "pork 'n beans" in Beantown; it's much easier to encounter some of the best and most innovative food in the country. Boston chefs have finally made their mark on the national food scene, once the undisputed domain of Los Angeles and New York.

Many of the chefs we've met have much in common: they are in, or around, their mid-30s, knew they wanted to be chefs by age 10 and by their teens decided cooking was their mission. They have traveled extensively in the U.S., Europe and Asia, working here and there. They combine elements of their various culinary experiences into their preparations. And all have received awards and national recognition.

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